The Visionary

Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand on the future, the environment, libertarianism, and the Merry Pranksters


For half a century, Stewart Brand has demonstrated a gift for prescience. He rode with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters when most Americans had never heard of hippies, ran the cameras at the first public display of modern computer text editing and graphics in 1968, and helped inspire Earth Day as an early environmental activist.

Brand is chiefly famous for creating the most important guidebook and self-help aid for the hippie generation, the Whole Earth Catalog. First published in 1968, it spun off one of the most interesting small magazines of the 1970s, CoEvolution Quarterly. The book and the magazine promoted cutting-edge ideas in ecology, urban planning, space exploration, and more.

Today Brand occupies a curious professional niche: half corporate consultant and half freewheeling visionary, co-founder of both the Global Business Network and the Long Now Foundation. The Global Business Network, through its use and popularization of scenario planning, has helped organizations from Shell to Xerox to the Joint Chiefs of Staff think about the future. The Long Now Foundation aims to "creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years" by building a monstrously large mechanical clock that can run by itself for millennia.

Brand's post–Whole Earth books range from The Media Lab (1987), an early survey of what has become our modern media world, to How Buildings Learn (1994), which examines the ways modern buildings evolve after they are erected. His most recent effort, Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto (Viking), offers full-blooded environmentalist defenses of practices fervently opposed by most of the environmentalist movement, most prominently nuclear power and genetic engineering, while painting a terrifying vision of what man-made climate change could lead to if we don't soon change our cultural and technological practices.

Brand lives on a tugboat in Sausalito, California, an ad hoc solution to the problems of adaptability, affordability, and community that he discusses in Whole Earth Discipline. I haven't seen the boat. He told me he prefers the press to focus on his ideas, not on such "journalistic color," and therefore insisted our April interview be conducted by phone. That detail, of course, supplies its own journalistic color, the image of a man who wants reporters to focus not on what he looks like, how he moves, or how he lives but merely on how he thinks.

reason: What do you think has placed you at so many interesting early stages of American cultural movements?

Stewart Brand: A mixture of curiosity, boredom, and absence of being dedicated to one big organization or one big ideology. I guess I agree with [science fiction writer] Bill Gibson's line that the future is already here; it's just not evenly distributed. I look for places where the future is turning up and look for a sense of "if this plays out, it'll change the world." And I go hang out when it's still taking shape. That led me to hang out with psychedelic drug people, then personal computer people, then MIT's Media Lab.

These days I keep a close eye on microbial research, synthetic biology. I'll seek out the Drew Endys of the world, check out what they are up to. Endy is a bioengineer at Stanford. He started the BioBricks Foundation at MIT and the iGEM [International Genetically Engineered Machine] Jamboree, where student groups come from all over the world and show off their bioengineered creations. So microbial biology, synthetic biology, to some extent geoengineering—these are the domains that I am paying attention to.

Outside of that, applied history. At a conference I helped get funding for a couple of months ago at Berkeley, we were looking at involving historians in an almost policy adviser role, equivalent to what economists do. Both decision makers and historians avoid each other, to their mutual harm. I'm trying to put them in the same room where decisions are being prepared.

reason: You were in the Army when you started hanging out with counterculture artist types in the early '60s, right?

Brand: I was simultaneously an infantry lieutenant during the week and a participant in avant-garde art groups in New York on the weekend. The artists were interested that I had short hair and was a soldier during the week. The soldiers were not the slightest bit interested that I was hanging out with longhairs.

I did ROTC at Stanford and was an officer for two years, active duty. As I got a good look at the Army, I knew it was not a career for me. But it was the best grad school I could have gone to. I learned a lot, got the hell out of the Midwestern world and the academic world. My company commander was a black guy in 1961. That was the most integrated part of America, the U.S. military. My sergeants were guys who had fought in Korea, and I learned the real story. They'd say, "Hey, heard of the famous victory of so-and-so? I was the only survivor of that victory."

And when I started the Whole Earth Catalog I had no problem being the guy in charge, because I'd been trained to do that.

reason: What attracted you to the Ken Kesey scene in Menlo Park in the '60s?

Brand: Kesey would say, "If you don't boil rocks and drink the water, how do you know it won't make you drunk?" That was a creative group, up to interesting and nefarious things. Kesey had the best thing going in the Bay Area. I sought it out and swam along with it like a pilot fish.

reason: To your advantage or disadvantage?

Brand: Some of both. Some things in the Kesey world proved perhaps ineffective over the long run. Drugs as a great social and personal liberator turned out to be pretty much a blind alley. Later I encountered computer people who were just as stoned, but on computers, not drugs. Their stuff kept getting better, whereas drugs did not.

The "acid tests" that Kesey organized were a much more creative thing than the East Coast version, "happenings," which were stilted and boring. The acid tests were boring, but that was the point. Throw people together, mix in a certain amount of acid, or the possibility of acid, have them go all night. People get bored. Pretty soon they will be doing interesting things with strobe lights blasting, going into the men's rooms to pull off rolls of paper towels and start tearing them up into small pieces and tossing them into strobe lights, creating this unimaginably beautiful snowfall, this "click click click" of things coming down. So everyone started tearing paper towels and throwing them up. It was like being inside a snow globe. The only way to discover something like that is being in a situation where lots of creative people are starting to get bored.

That spirit of Kesey's survives in Burning Man. I'm always encouraging everybody I know to go, to just get a good feeling about the future. You see there a generation of intensely creative and effective and responsible and joyous people who get off on having a week-long occasion to just bear down on putting on a fantastic show with no spectators, and that's extraordinary. You already see spin-offs, things like Maker Faire, and they create a sense that there's boundless personality and creativity and ways to influence one another responsibly that are still in the process of being discovered.

reason: The Whole Earth Catalog had a reputation as a bible for hippie communes.

Brand: In 1968, when we started, a number of people were starting communes. I had been a big part of such efforts in New Mexico and Colorado. Some were religious, some spiritual, some were traveling—you had the Hog Farm and Wavy Gravy with a set of buses. The idea was to reinvent civilization from scratch, which was a pretty interesting idea. I had a liberal education and I didn't know how anything worked, and these people trying to restart civilization didn't either. The Whole Earth Catalog set up ways to acquire tools and techniques for the people doing that, and lots of other people were into the same things. It was very much a commune-based publication.

Communes failed very educationally. Everyone got to discover what happens when you do without this or do without that. That there's more to gardening than throwing seeds at the ground. That if you try to have a community where you rely on women to do all the dirty work, well, the women leave, and the next thing you know you have empty communes. Women's liberation was starting to happen, and they liberated themselves from many a commune.

reason: How did you see your politics back in the Whole Earth Catalog days?

Brand: I knew it would be a disaster if all the scientists died, but if all the politicians died tomorrow no one would notice. With Whole Earth Catalog we were taking an explicitly nonpolitical stance. We'd feature something like Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, mostly because of the title, but also because it was a how-to book on how to be politically effective. I understand people are still using it now. So Whole Earth Catalog was meant to be practical—focusing away from the merely political or artistic, about technology, science, or even how to do macramé or early recycling, like use this device to turn a bottle into a really ugly glass.

It was an era of big government, big business, a big formal education and court system. Whole Earth Catalog was a response to this dilemma. It was about personal power, developing the power of the individual to direct his or her own education, inspiration, and sharing the adventure with whoever was interested. We offered tools to promote this process. This was in an era when JFK was saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." We were saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you; do it yourself!"

reason: You were a huge promoter of the ideas and techniques of Buckminster Fuller, including popularizing his famous geodesic dome. You've been apologetic about that since, though. Why?

Brand: Bucky Fuller and Marshall McLuhan basically persuaded the hippie generation that technology was their friend. Fuller was an odd duck but brilliant. Certain things played out how he said they would, like ephemeralization, doing more with less. We liked what he was saying and how he was saying it, and we were looking for a flag to wave. Buckminster Fuller came along with the geodesic dome, which we promoted. And as a result lots of people learned very strange geometry. But I spent enough time with the domes to go apostate and say that they leak, are unpleasant to live in, are not as resourceful as we hoped, are a bad idea.

reason: What do you think the effect of the Whole Earth Catalog was?

Brand: I'm still surprised by the extent it is considered a talisman of the era. I still encounter people for the first time, and if they recognize my name they will say, "We still have the Whole Earth Catalog"—or that their parents still have theirs. Soon I'll be hearing "my grandparents." Evidently it was seen as a catalog of liberation for lots of people in remote towns, who tell me it gave them access to a West Coast reality going on that they could participate in from where they were.

More specifically, I think some of the other things from Buckminster Fuller, like getting people to think in whole systems, have played out well. Also, we were promoting computers and software as technologies of liberation rather then technologies of control, which is what the left thought at the time.

reason: Your popularization of that picture of the whole Earth is credited with helping launch modern environmental consciousness and Earth Day. It was Earth Day just the other day. What do you think of it?

Brand: I was much instructed by this film on PBS the other night, Earth Days. Robert Stone put it together. I had not realized on the West Coast the extent to which that first Earth Day was an earthshaking, politics-shaking phenomenon that led directly to Nixon, of all people, encouraging and assigning a whole bunch of tremendously productive green legislation. That first Earth Day was a fabulous accomplishment, much more so than I realized at the time.

reason: You shifted in the 1970s from that earthy, crunchy, rural commune feel to promoting, among other things, space colonies. How did that play with your audience?

Brand: Some people felt we had really betrayed everything they thought we stood for. I felt ill-used by that.

My approach was: A good magazine's role is to challenge its core readership from time to time. I wish reason did that more often! This was a case of that. I was an enthusiast. My mom passed onto me that space exploration was a fantastic thing, and I loved Gerry O'Neill's idea of an inside-out planet that gets its gravity by rotation, replacing gravity with centrifugal force. But I also thought it played into some of the commune-starting idea that I had been involved with for a while. Instead of having it in a bus in New Mexico, have a commune in space. I thought that was consistent with what we were doing, but lots of readers thought: "high tech, large scale, therefore bad."

I also predicted confidently we'd all be in space in a decade or two. That was just wrong. It didn't happen because we're at the bottom of a deep gravity well and the costs of getting out of it are horrendous. Whether it will happen remains to be seen.

reason: You worked for Jerry Brown when he was governor of California in the '70s. What was that like, and are you still an admirer as he runs again?

Brand: I am still in touch with him, and he's doing amazingly. We are almost exactly the same age, so I keep track of him fairly closely.

I think he'll be an excellent second governor, and he was first-rate the first time. I was on his personal staff part time, and he hired a whole bunch of people from the Bay Area that he got to know through the San Francisco Zen Center. Through me he got Rusty Schweickart, the astronaut, and Art Rosenfeld, the physicist from Berkeley, who got Jerry and the state thinking seriously about energy conservation. As a direct result of work they did in government we are now in California emitting half the greenhouse gases of any other state per citizen.

Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly were solidly libertarian. I guess I was quasi-libertarian. I went and worked in government at the state level and came to realize all the libertarians I knew then or know now never actually worked in government or served their country in any manner. So lots of theories libertarians have about government are based on zero knowledge, or based on the kind of stuff that goes on in elections.

I discovered when I worked in Sacramento that elected officials are the least clueful, most distracted, and often most harmful people in government. But "faceless bureaucrats," so called, are a fabulous cadre of public-spirited, hard-working, effective, apolitical players. Both the New Left people I knew and the libertarians were ignorant of practical politics. The only libertarian of prominence I know who worked in government was Robert Heinlein, who had been in the Navy. I got to know him when I worked for Brown. He came to an event Jerry did at the Maritime Training Academy in Vallejo.

reason: Do you still see yourself as having a libertarian streak?

Brand: I see things that take fire on their own, either in the face of government or irrelevant to government, like the Third World slums, and I'm interested and respectful. I also think in biological terms, which is devoid of government.

reason: Your view of the value of squatter slums is an interesting bit of optimism in Whole Earth Discipline. What's good about them?

Brand: A classic libertarian argument is that people do pretty well when left alone. The slums are a tremendous grassroots release from poverty for millions of people, creating jobs and communities. They do the job incrementally and often with the opposition of city government, regional government, and national government, and nevertheless made a major advance for individuals in the slums themselves and for whole cities and the national economies that they are in.

It's the informal economy, as we call it, or the do-it-yourself economy. There is crime, sometimes large-scale organized crime, so it's not a totally happy story. But it is by and large a story of people going dead at something and making it happen. It's interesting to see how the United Nations came around, from usually deploring slums as sources of poverty and a crime against humanity to realizing, after serious field research, "This works more like a cure for poverty than a cause of poverty."

reason: Why are crowded cities more "green" than traditional rural living?

Brand: The developing world and developed world are different on this. When subsistence farmers stop trying to get food out of lousy soil and go to town, bush grows back fast and animals come back with it. Statistically we come across five times more rainforest growing back as second growth than being cut down as primary. So biodiversity is being restored because people are seeking a better life.

That's the developing world. In the developed world, you see people who live in the country using a lot more energy and materials than people living in downtown areas. Compactness in cities is the main goal—getting more and more people within a dense part of town, which they enjoy. We need to have good schools in downtowns, which has been a problem in most cities. That's why people go to suburbs, because it's where better schools are.

reason: Do you think government planning is needed to ensure these living outcomes you prefer?

Brand: The "new urbanism" is something I celebrate in Whole Earth Discipline. I was around for part of its creation with Peter Calthorpe. One thing that has paid off pretty well is just rewriting the codes so alleys are permitted, mother-in-law units are permitted, have cars slowing down to give pedestrians a chance, more mixed use, don't go overboard on zoning. Those turn out to be good things. Some American cities—Houston is on that list—tend to be not as wonderful with less planning. So a certain amount of planning seems to be OK if it's more intelligent and humanly paced.

We should figure out ways to have urban areas develop so that people have a certain amount of equity in their places. Hernando de Soto said that if most people have legal equity in homes, all will be well. They could capitalize on that, but the first thing that happens is absentee landlords, and then there goes the neighborhood.

Cities have a quality of real feedback. If they try something it tends to get recognized or applied in other cities, which is not so often the case at the state or federal level.

reason: You use the word pragmatist in the subtitle of your new book. But that presumes we agree on the goals we're pragmatically pursuing. What values are you privileging when you talk about pragmatism?

Brand: Kevin Kelly focused on this, and I was persuaded by his phrasing. What I am looking for is to maintain options. Make sure humans have at least as many choices as they had in the past. The way that plays out in thinking about, say, nuclear waste is to stick it in the ground, leave it in dry casks for centuries while we think of what to do with it. That's leaving options open rather than closing options off. If we see climate moving to a hot mode, that removes options people in civilization have gotten used to with the weather of the past 10 millennia.

The goal is keep options open, or open them up further. The pragmatism part is in the original sense of whatever works, and let ideology take the hindmost.

reason: How does a lack of pragmatism play out in environmental debates?

Brand: If environmentalism is about protection of natural systems, are genetically modified crops worse in that regard or better or neutral? As far as I can tell, they are neutral in some cases and better in almost all cases; they are not worse in protecting natural systems. So whether using G.M. crops seems "unnatural" should be a less interesting debate. Microbiologists found that what the anti-G.M. people were worried about was being done by microbes all the time, and no one was going to regulate them.

reason: One of your leading heresies in environmentalist terms is being staunchly pro-nuclear. If I'm reading you right, you think the traditional opposition to nukes might be fading.

Brand: Lots of European countries that were planning to shut down reactors, like Sweden and Germany, have reversed their position. Italy had shut down reactors after Chernobyl and is now building new ones. Do the arithmetic on the international scale: What will it take to cut greenhouse gas emissions? Nuclear winds up being part of the solution. That reality overwhelms previous thoughts about the downside of nukes. Anti-nuclear people can stress all they want, but that's what's going forward. To be an environmentalist used to automatically mean being anti–nuclear power, and that's no longer the case.

The president is pretty strongly pro-nuclear based on his experience in Illinois, which gets half of its electricity from 11 reactors we have there. His secretary of energy, Stephen Chu, is very familiar with nuclear, and pro. Then you've got prominent politicians from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—who doesn't like the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca but hates coal even worse—all pro-nuclear. What will still be key in the U.S. is watching the ferociously pro-nuclear programs in China and India.

reason: Your attitudes about overpopulation have mellowed over the years. Why?

Brand: Paul Ehrlich often is vilified by the likes of reason for being wrong about predicting famines, but he was a tremendously productive scientist, not only as a lepidopterist, but as co-inventor of the concept of coevolution, which has been tremendously helpful. And he's a good guy.

His approach on population comes from his activities as a population biologist. That's what I knew him as at Stanford in the 1950s. He extrapolated from what he knows is the case with biology for nonhumans and tracked it onto humans, and overtracked it. Part of his overstatement of the early '70s included a fairly apocalyptic statement about population. That was true in one way: Large numbers have large impacts. He thought it would lead to 40 percent of ice-free land devoted to agriculture. This led to overstatements about how it would get fixed, and Paul took the view that government would have to discourage having children. That did play out in China. Not as a direct result of Paul, near as I can tell.

But liberation of land meant the defusing of the population bomb. Urbanization is a huge part. So is distribution of medical care, and education for woman, which led directly to having fewer children. Economic opportunity in any form led to a demographic transition, so we are looking in the next century at a peak in population somewhere between 7 and 9.5 billion, then a rapid falling of population of a sort we are already seeing and is being treated as a catastrophe in Japan, southern Korea, Singapore, Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe—lots of places are running out of young people.

One of the atrocious byproducts of worrying about population in the U.S. was that some environmentalists, such as the Sierra Club, for a while became anti-immigrant, and that was pretty racist. There's a book reason should review, The Coming Population Crash, by Fred Pearce. It states this stronger than I do; he did real research. I did not realize the degree to which population dogma had been basically eugenicist from Malthus on. It led England to approve of a million people dying in the Ireland famine in the 1840s because they thought that was good for the world.

reason: For the past 16 years you have been working with the Long Now Foundation, which your mission statement says "hopes to provide counterpoint to today's 'faster/cheaper' mind set and promote 'slower/better' thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years." Won't the pace of change in society and technology be such that we have no idea how to conceptualize or serve the needs of 100 years from now, much less 10,000?

Brand: I think that long-term perspective is important for climate change. It's a multi-century issue and will take multi-century terms to deal with. Civilization is getting better and better at managing the next election and next quarterly report and not in any way good at dealing with long-term stuff.

Trying to think long-term is wonderful. It leads us to peculiar art projects, both ours and other people's. It raises questions that don't get answered on the first round or second or third but that tend to be illuminating each time we try.

reason: You are trying to build a giant clock in Nevada that would work for 10,000 years. Now that the idea, the way of thinking, is out there, is building it any more useful than just talking about it?

Brand: One of the things we discovered is that materiality counts. Trying to raise money for material things is easier than for ideas. It shows that this is the actual world we are talking about; we're not just waving hands here. The idea that there can be a clock that keeps ticking relatively on its own for thousands of years is kind of exciting. It's one of those things like a space colony, only doable.

reason: One of my favorite quotes from you is in your Clock of the Long Now book: "Surprise plus memory equals learning. Endless surprise, diligent memory, endless learning." What has been surprising you recently?

Brand: Metagenomics, the shotgun sequencing of whole populations of microbes and things that come out of that, has knocked my socks off.

The "black swan" phenomenon is one I've gotten into. I think Nassim Taleb is on to something profound there. Scenario planning is way better than the things it replaced, but it's limited in that all the scenarios in a workshop need to be plausible. Reality has no such obligation. There's always a very large number of things we don't consider because we consider them impossible, but there are so many of them that actually might happen that you have to deal with them.

reason: Your most famous epigram is undoubtedly from the Whole Earth Catalog: "We have become as gods and might as well get good at it."

Brand: In Whole Earth Discipline, I changed that to, "We have become as gods and have to get good at it." That includes taking things like geoengineering seriously. With power comes responsibility. As our power continues to increase, so our responsibility continues to increase.